The comic industry doesn’t seem to want to admit they aren’t doing well, despite many fans seeing the flaws. It’s not political (as the creators like to claim) because liberals and conservatives alike are seeing the trends that hurting comics and have been even before the current social climate started affecting the four color paper products we all know and love. That’s why I bring up politics so rarely, because they’re only a symptom of the current failings in modern comics.
CBR contributor Ashley Land recently posted a list article of “10 Worst Trends In Modern Comics“, a list so on the nose that one of their major detractors, Eric July of the Rippaverse did a video going over everything they got right…which was most of the list. Here’s that video if you’re curious, because this article is about MY interpretation of the list. Like both Land and Ashley I do agree with this list and have done numerous articles over the years on these mistakes. These aren’t even all recent trends, just problems that were allowed to get worse before being controlled or even stopped before they got this bad. So let’s dissect these problems and really see what happened. Grab a comfy seat, folks, because this is going to be a long one.
Some Comic Books Are Clearly Written To Be TV Shows And Movies
Now, with streaming services like Netflix having some success adapting comic books into movies, everyone is trying to get in on it – especially indies. The problem here is that the comics themselves don’t make full use of the medium. They can feel restrained and muted, not living up to the potential the medium allows.
It’s worse than that. American Original was a comic company that I talked about when it was announced. They even announced a bunch of titles before disappearing into the ether. The plan was to allow the contributing creators to have full control should a movie be made. I’ve seen failed movie scripts be turned into comics, possibly in the hopes of getting some attention and finally getting the movie made. Kevin Smith even tried it with his own take on the Green Hornet but we got the Seth Green movie instead. I’m not sure if we got the better deal or not. Of course, with the trend of adaptations-in-name-only for comics even from the indie scene this clearly isn’t the right option. I’ve got another commentary planned for this week about the latest observations on the clique culture of Hollywood looking down on comics.
Even a lot of the changes (especially the sociopolitical ones) seem to be done so the creator at the time could influence what shows up in the movies. Not that this matters, as the link to the Marry Me comic review I linked to just now shows, or the changes in the CBS/CW’s Supergirl show and the descetration the Harley Quinn movie did to Cassandra Cain. Still, when Iron Man seemed to revitalize the comic-based movie adaptations it didn’t take long before proper adaptations fell apart again. I think this is what Land meant, however, that the writers are more interested in influencing the take on characters seen in movie adaptations than in making them work in the actual comics, either for tokenized “representation” or to see something they made in the top rung of the media status symbol rather than making good comics. Given how many writers and top brass of comic companies come from novels and TV and the push to get movies made from their comics I can’t say I’m surprised.
Decompression Is Ok, But Comic Readers Still Like Shorter Arcs
Current comics, however, have a tendency to have story arcs that can last too long, making it a daunting task for new readers to jump in. Some series absolutely work better with long-form storytelling, but it can also be a curse for comics sales overall, leaving some issues feeling like pure filler.
This one was started by greed. Comic bigwigs at DC and Marvel (Toy Biz and Ike Perlmutter at the time, so at least you can’t blame this one on Disney) especially saw how the trade collections were doing, didn’t realize it was because those stories were so important to the history of the comic universe. It was collected to make it easier to get the whole story rather than hunting for back issues nobody was getting rid of because of that importance. So they ordered what we call “writing for the trade”, shoving six issues of story together whether the story benefited from it or not.
The longest story I’ve ever done back in the notebook days was maybe three issues, and that was because I wanted to show off members of a group stationed on all seven continents. Otherwise I rarely went past two to really flesh the story out, all of them being “pilots” for a homemade anthology. These are long-running series with subplots involving the continued relationship of the characters going on during the main storyline and how each affects the other. Comics were serialized, with a main story for casual reading and a running subplot for long-term readers, creating the shared universe in the process. This hurt the monthly titles as casual readers weren’t onboard for six issue stories to see if they wanted to read more and just wanted something quick to read in the waiting room, at lunch, or on the train, something for their free time. Kids (whose being pushed out is sadly NOT on this list) also got a quick read and went to play those characters. Die-hard fans just wait for the trade to get the full story at once, the comic equivalent of binge-watching.
Rather than ask for a return to shorter stories, however, the call has been to just end the periodicals and make all graphic novels. That kills what made the monthlies work and this is not the right solution. Let long series be long series, let graphic novels be graphic novels, and save trades for newspaper strips or to collect special long story arcs for new readers who missed out. You know, what used to work before they abandoned it.
The Comic Industry Has Seen Its Genres Whittled Away
In modern comics, there are fewer dedicated genre comics than ever. War comics are basically non-existent. Fantasy has been incredibly diminished over the years and horror has been watered down. Key to a thriving industry is good representation and use of genres, which is currently lacking.
There is some truth to this. The war comic went away because the former hippies and those the influenced are now there and would rather only discuss the race war, the gender war, or any war that doesn’t involve the US winning. War isn’t “sexy” to most modern creators in comics so even in movies they’re dying out like the classic Western. Back to comics, slice of life stuff is reduced to young adult stories using superhero character in non-superhero stories, with only a few indie titles taking up the field of documentary comics, stories about models just being models and having lives, and anything else that isn’t crime, superheroes, sci-fi, horror (I don’t know where Land is getting the idea horror is watered down…just because DC ditched the Vertigo imprint doesn’t mean we aren’t getting horror stories), and fantasy. We also don’t get many book adaptations these days.
It’s a misconception that superheroes are the only thing in comics. However, foreign comics and webcomics/self-publishers are at least trying to pick up the slack. There are comics about kids with imaginary friends coming to life, animals being experimented on and gaining sapience, lilliputian societies, wacky hijinks, romance, and even fantasy still being produced. They just aren’t in the mainstream comics. The problem with webcomics is often you have to find them and there’s no central hub for finding them unless they’re part of a group like Webtoons or Drunk Duck, and unless you learn of them from some website or convention they may not gain a proper audience. I try to help when I find something I want to promote but I still have to find them.
The Shrinkage Of Ongoing Books Leaves Little To Invest In
I don’t even have to quote this one. In addition to the above mentioned issues with trade-writing comic companies are more interested in playing to speculators than comic fans. Although by now I think even the speculators are starting to realize just being a #1 after five other #1s in the same year isn’t going to make them money. What makes a comic sell for enough money to feed a third-world nation for a month is the rarity and the importance of the event. Action Comics #1 from the 1930s was the first appearance of Superman, one of the biggest cultural icons in the U.S. of A., while Action Comics #1 from 2023 is just another Superman story.
I think it was either in the late nineties or early two-thousands that comic companies started getting scared of long numbers. It was no longer bragging to have made it to #1573 and so everything got renumbered in the hopes of getting speculators excited and possibly be seen as a jumping-on point for new readers skittish about a long-running series and it’s history. Apparently the easy way out instead of just making a good story where readers wanted to learn that history was the direction they went.
The Multiverse Is Fun, But There Can Be Too Much Of A Good Thing
Eric July may hate the multiverse but it does have potential for decent crossovers, a one-time side story exploring the character in a new environment, and can indeed be fun…in moderation. We don’t have moderation, we have writers who want that famous name attached but want to tell a story without the supposed “baggage” of history (aka “I didn’t make it so I can’t control it”). Some good stories have come from the multiverses, mirror universes, and hypertime realties, but the goal should be to explore the characters , themes, and concepts of your main universe. What would Superman be like in this version. What if Spider-Man was able to do something he wasn’t and how would it change the course of stories going forward? That’s a good use of the multiverse.
Making Miles Morales into everybody is not that. “We want to make this character a black lesbian in a wheelchair” is not that. Too many versions make for watered-down derivatives, which is what July is worries about. There are two versions of the Shattered Glass universe, and (here’s another video link) TJ Omega recently noted that IDW did not understand what Fun Publications got right about the Transformers mirror universe idea by making their version too serious rather than Fun Pub’s goofy fun concept. Done right, the multiverse explores your main characters or allows crossovers with other properties or unconnected properties in your own company. Done wrong and you just kill interest in everything.
It’s Time To Admit The Superhero Families Are Too Big
For example, Batman was once thought of as the solitary, brooding hero yet now boasts the biggest family in comics. The main issue with these families is that titles meant to focus on a specific character can make that hero feel more like a guest star in their own book. Legacy heroes are great, but solo books are better.
Actually, I don’t mind that Batman has more people on his side so long as they work and offer new ways to explore Batman, Gotham City, and the villains within Gotham. Detective Comics or some title just for the Bat-Family would be a better option. However, whomever came up with images for this article actually used the influx of new Spider-People, which July have been rallying against for a while now, and that’s a different story. Spider-Man and Spider-Woman (originally created to keep other creators from creating a “spider-woman” as Spider-Man got more popular, a callback to the days of the Tarzan knockoffs running out of ideas and going with “Tarzan as a girl” just to keep the trend going) used to be it. Now you have Miles brought in from another universe, Ghost Spider (also known as Spider-Gwen) showing up alongside them in other realities like TV shows despite still being in her own universe where Gwen Stacy got spider-powers instead of Peter Parker, Silk, another spider-person who’s a wheelchair bound lesbian for the extra bingo card slots, two different Spider-Daughters in the multiverse, two versions of Spider-Ham, yet more Spider-Women and spider-girls in the main universe at one point or another…all we need is the spider-partridge in a pear tree.
Now the Superman family is more than just Supergirl and Kal-El’s clone or son. We have the supertwins coming in, Two Supermans (no, that’s not a typo…two people named Superman, not just two supermen), numerous Flashes…even the Green Lanterns have five representatives on Earth alone. At some point you need to either create something else or just not create anything while letting the characters be themselves without a bunch of namesakes and derivatives.
There’s No Good Reason Any Comic Should Have Dozens Of Variant Covers
This has been one of my complaints for years. I can see having a variant cover for some big event like a major convention, or when the Rippaverse had Isom #1 (since I’ve mentioned July more than once in this article) with a cover for backers, one for early adopters, and one for the regular buyers after the crowdfund. It gives up something special for being part of a special event. However, there was that Godzilla comic (I forget which publisher and issue) that had a different cover for each con and every national comic store in the US and that was over the line. Then there’s this note from Land after mentioning remembering a comic with 50 variant covers:
Most disappointingly of all is that it can feel like the publishers are intentionally creating scarcity on the best cover artists, making their work less accessible. Variants have their place in the comic book world but when it’s impossible to collect every variant for a single issue, something is wrong.
Even dumber are the variant covers with a company wide theme, which Marvel breaks out now and then. You can get this cover by regular inside comic artist, this special alternate cover by Alex Ross, this one by Sergio Aragones, or this series of variant covers throughout the line done in crayon by the publisher’s five-year-old niece Becky. I usually just go with the actual comic’s art team unless it really sucks.
Fans Miss A World That Wasn’t Quite So Batman-Centric
Indeed, the fixation on Batman can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the publishing schedule is crowded with Bat-books, it’s difficult for other characters to achieve the status that Batman has built up. The added problem is that DC have a tendency to put their star talent on only major characters – further compounding the issue.
When Superman was the flagship character they did the same thing with him. The 1990s especially was bad on this, with Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man all having at least four main titles and an original graphic novel going at the same time. I get it, Batman sells, but there is a bat-overload only made worse by the Joker-overload. The bat-family doesn’t need any more members and Batman gets to have a day off as well.
Deconstruction Stories Have Long Outstayed Their Welcome
One of the most tired and longest running trends in modern comic books has been deconstruction. The trope was mastered by Alan Moore throughout his comics career. The idea of the trope is to amplify the flaws of the world in order to destroy the more picturesque image readers had of it.
However, the whole point of comics is to give readers a fun, fantastical story. Characters like Superman and Spider-Man exist almost exclusively to serve as a symbol of hope. Considering how much of comics’ historic success is built on young readers, deconstruction just doesn’t work when commonly used.
The only thing I can add to this is that when you just deconstruct everything you end up deconstructing things nobody uses anymore because they’re too busy deconstructing the tropes so they really don’t exist now. The YouTube channel “Terrible Writing Advice” just covered the cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction. (See tomorrow’s Daily Video post.) I think it’s time to move to that next phase.
Too Many Comic Events Will Turn Away Many Readers
If you’ve been around here longer than just now you already know this one. I even gave it a name: Eventitis. We need a cure right now.
The strength of comic books is its ongoing legacy, and the companies have shown this in their legacy numbering of longstanding series. In fact, some series that only ran a few years were steeped in events and crossovers and never had a chance to stand on their own merits.
Amen, Ashley Land.